Shares of Tesla sank more than 9% on Thursday after the company reported mixed results for the second quarter. Now, some Wall Street analysts are making the case that it’s just the beginning of a nightmare for Elon Musk and company.
David Trainer, CEO of the investment research firm New Constructs, believes Tesla is worth just $26 per share after its latest earnings showed deteriorating margins and waning demand. That’s roughly a tenth of the EV giant’s Thursday closing price.
“Tesla’s (TSLA) second quarter earnings confirm our view that the stock is one of the most overvalued stocks in the market,” the veteran analyst wrote in a Thursday note.
Although Tesla managed to beat Wall Street’s consensus estimates for the second quarter, reporting revenue of $24.9 billion compared to the forecasted $24.51 billion (and adjusted earnings-per-share of $0.91 against the estimated $0.81), margins came under pressure.
Tesla’s gross profit margin fell from its fourth quarter 2022 peak of 24% to just 18.2% last quarter, slightly below Wall Street’s consensus estimate for 18.8%. Musk also signaled that third quarter EV production will be down slightly, hinted that more price cuts could be on the way, and flagged an unpredictable economy in the company’s earnings call.
Tesla has slashed prices on some of its most popular EV models over the past year in an attempt to fight off rising competition and economic headwinds, but the move has some analysts concerned about the firm’s ability to maintain profitability.
Despite the warnings from bears on Wall Street, Tesla stock has jumped more than 140% year-to-date, recovering from a brutal 2022 where tech and growth stocks were hammered by rising interest rates.
After more than a year of recession predictions from economists have failed to materialize, many investors have been anticipating a soft landing for the U.S. economy and pricing in a new bull market for tech shares like Tesla, but David Trainer warned that could be a mistake.
“Tesla’s stock has been rising this year amid a sudden shift in overall market sentiment, with many investors now pricing in a soft landing scenario after a brutal past year of Federal Reserve rate hikes,” he said. “But the shift in market sentiment doesn’t change the fact that Tesla’s stock fundamentals are completely disconnected from reality.”
5 reasons to be bearish
Trainer, whose firm is known for its focus on analyzing corporate fundamentals such as cash flow and profit margins, laid out five main reasons why he’s bearish on Tesla shares Thursday.
First, he warned that demand for Tesla EVs has become an issue amid rising competition and consistent inflation. Tesla has now produced more vehicles than it sold for five consecutive quarters, and there are hundreds of up and coming EV models set to hit the market over the next few years.
The only solution to this demand problem is price cuts, Trainer argued, and that brings us to his second key concern—margins. As previously mentioned, Tesla’s gross margins have dropped significantly in the past few quarters due to consistent price cuts and rising costs. And “should demand for EVs slow, Tesla could find itself with higher than wanted inventory levels, which could lead to further price cuts and additional pressure on already falling margins,” Trainer warned.
Third, Trainer said Tesla is in the middle of a “massive cash burn,” noting that the company has had negative free cash flow—a measure of the amount of cash a company has left after paying its operating expenses and capital expenditures—in all but one year of its existence as a public company (2019).
“Despite Tesla’s top line growth, it continues to burn massive amounts of cash. Over the past five years, Tesla has burned a cumulative $4.2 billion in free cash flow (FCF), including $3.6 billion over the trailing-twelve months (TTM) alone,” he wrote.
Fourth, Trainer argued that Tesla bulls rely on lofty estimates for the firm’s full-self driving business and EV charging network in order to value the company, but these business segments “aren’t material” to the bottom line at the moment as some 86% of Tesla’s revenues come from selling cars.
“Bulls have long argued that Tesla isn’t just an automaker, but rather a technology company with multiple verticals such as insurance, solar power, housing, and, yes, robots. We’ve long refuted these bull dreams,” he wrote. “Regardless of the promises of developing multiple business lines, Tesla’s business remains concentrated in its auto segment.”
Finally, Trainer believes that with price cuts weighing on margins, and competition from legacy automakers heating up, Tesla’s current valuation just doesn’t make sense. “While Tesla is profitable, its profits are nowhere near the levels needed to justify its current valuation,” he explained.
Tesla currently trades at roughly 80 times forward earnings compared to just over 25 times forward earnings for tech companies within the S&P 500.
To determine a more accurate valuation for Tesla, Trainer and his team used a reverse discounted cash flow (DCF) model—a valuation method that estimates the level of future cash flows or profits that would be required to justify a company’s current stock price.
Using this model they found that Tesla would need to achieve a nearly unprecedented 129% return on invested capital (ROIC) and become more than twice as profitable as Apple by 2032 in order to justify its current share price.
For reference, Tesla’s trailing twelve month ROIC is just 24%, according to Morningstar data, and although the company earned a record profit of $12.6 billion last year, that was still dwarfed by Apple’s $99.8 billion profit.
“We aim to provide inarguably best-case scenarios for assessing the expectations for future market share and profits reflected in Tesla’s stock market valuation,” Trainer wrote. “Even doing so, we find that Tesla is significantly overvalued.”
The bull case
Of course, for every bear, there’s a bull—and Tesla has its fair share of bulls. Take Wedbush’s top tech analyst Dan Ives, for example. Ives saw Tesla’s second quarter earnings in a very different light than Trainer and the bears.
He argued in a Thursday note that Tesla’s gross margins, which Trainer fears will continue to fall, are in “stabilization mode,” Musk’s price cuts have helped boost demand for Tesla’s EVs, and the company’s full self-driving (FSD) A.I. technology and EV charging network will help boost profits for years to come.
“This is the ‘golden vision’ as Tesla is now monetizing its supercharger network with batteries and AI/FSD next adding to the sum-of-the-parts story for Tesla,” he wrote in a Thursday note, reiterating his buy-equivalent “outperform” rating and raising his 12-month price target from $300 to $350.
Ives’ comments echo those of Musk, who argued Thursday that recent price cuts are leading to “minor” and “short-term” variances in gross margin, but ultimately FSD will be the real money maker. “Autonomy will make all of these numbers look silly,” the billionaire said.
And while Trainer warned that Tesla would need to make nearly twice Apple’s current profits in order to justify its current valuation by 2032, Ives doesn’t see that as being so outlandish.
“In a nutshell, we view Tesla where Apple was in the 2008/2009 period as Cupertino was just starting to monetize its services and golden ecosystem with the Street not seeing the broader golden vision at the time,” he said. “We view this quarter as a major step in the right direction as Tesla is playing chess while others play checkers.”